Solstice garden update and merry christmas

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. 

Cicero

I thought I would end the year with a garden update given that it’s the summer solstice down here in the Southern Hemisphere. The garden has proven to be a sanctuary over the past two years in Melbourne where we’ve spent almost a whole year in lockdown. It was the one place I have been legally allowed to be outside without wearing the obligatory face nappy. It’s not lost on me that the drive to suburbia in the earlier part of the 20th century was in large part a drive to get away from the pollution and disease of the inner city. In some of the older inner suburbs of Melbourne, where property prices these days are astronomical, it’s still considered necessary to have your soil tested before growing food producing plants because those areas were previously set aside for heavy industry and heavy industry comes with toxic byproducts that decades later are still hanging around.

It was away from this pollution that the emerging middle class moved seeking the fresh air and clean soil of the suburbs. The possession of enough land to grow a garden was also considered a positive and prior to the wars everybody would have had a kitchen garden and a lemon tree as a bare minimum. In the postwar boom years the kitchen garden was replaced by a lawn. These days, there’s almost no lemon trees to be found and the lawns are a lot smaller. The new suburbs are full of properties that are lucky to be on 1/8th of an acre with a McMansion that stretches from one fence to the other. A garden of any interest is an impossibility on such a block. Although, this is no problem for most people for whom even mowing the lawn is too much of a chore. The reason people move to the suburbs now is not to avoid the inner suburbs but because they cannot afford the inner suburbs. The result is that the outer suburbs are more or less like the inner suburbs, at least as far as size of land goes.

When I made the move to the suburbs it was with an old fashioned garden in mind and so I deliberately chose a place in an older suburb where the new fashion of sub-division hadn’t yet taken hold. The house came with a lemon tree which, by a random meeting with the daughter of the ex-owner, I learned was planted in the 1950s by the original owners.

Old eureka lemon still producing beautiful fruit all year round

Sadly, the subdivision trend has now arrived in this area too. Just this year the property at the end of my street was split in two. It was once a quarter acre with a number of big fruit trees near the fence. I admit to helping myself to some of the peaches when walking past a few times (the owner didn’t seem interested in them). But the peach tree, perhaps planted around the same time as the lemon tree on my property, is no more. Along with the others, it was uprooted to make space for a huge house which takes up basically the entire block. Where I used to reach over to grab a peach you can now touch the side of the house, that’s how close it is to the fence. This kind of subdivision has been happening in Melbourne for two decades now. It’s all inflation, of course. The prices of properties continue to go up as the size of the land goes down. The median house price in Melbourne is now more than a million dollars and is completely untethered from underling reality much like the rest of our society these days. 

One of the valuable things about a backyard garden is that it provides close contact with reality. This year I’ve had to battle aphids who did some damage to one of the apple trees before I managed to get them under control. I had to learn the hard way that the grass I planted, even though it said “drought proof” on the box, is not suitable for the climate where I live so I’ll have to plant something different once summer is over. And I’ve also had the usual battles with pests, although this was the first year I remembered to net the almond trees before the cockatoos got to them so baring unforeseen circumstances I should get an almond harvest for the first time. 

I’ve also been in the process of changing the design of the garden from the original edible forest garden concept to an orchard-and-separate-veggie-garden setup. In the process I added 5 new fruit trees which brings the total to 25 along with 3 grape vines and a number of passionfruit vines. In addition, I added about 8 square metres of veggie gardens to bring the total to just under 20. I expanded my composting operations with the aid of the chicken manure from the coop and I have achieved another goal which is to grow all my vegetables from seed. Next year’s goal will be to grow all vegetables from seeds which I saved myself. Now that high summer is here, there’s nothing much to do except sit back and harvest the goodies.

I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next few weeks to knuckle down and see if I can’t finish off my fourth novel “Once Upon a Time in Tittybong 2: Catch My Disease” (yes, the theme is heavily influenced by corona). I wish everybody a Merry Xmas and a happy new year. Doing either of these things now amounts to an act of rebellion so embrace your inner rebel and remember the Devouring Mother wants you miserable.

Here’s some updated garden pics.

A new addition to the front yard contains perennial veggies, herbs and flowering plants for the bees and butterflies
The giant peppercorn sucks up all the moisture from the soil, so these beds are all raised wicking beds which cuts back substantially on the amount of water needed for irrigation and turns this part of the garden into a productive area
The “orchard” has apple and pear trees to the right, newly planted olive and mandarin in the middle and lemon and macadamia to the left
I introduced Diogena, the cynic chicken, in an earlier post. In recent weeks, she has decided that the dry, warm, secure environment of the chicken coop is not to her liking and has decided to start roosting on, of all places, the pipe that leads from the gutter to the rainwater tank.
Like a true cynic, getting ready to sleep under the stars

The Diogenes Chicken

Over the past year I have inadvertently become something of an amateur ornithologist. When the corona business arrived, I was on a break from paid employment while I worked on my second and third novel. That break ended up lasting a lot longer than I thought and also included the writing of my book on the corona event. Nowadays, I’m back in a paid job but am working from home. I live about half a kilometre from the Werribee River with a major bird wetlands only about ten kilometres from my house so the area is rich in bird species. As my work desk overlooks my backyard, I get to watch as they come and go. Birds seen in my area on a normal day include, in rough order of size: sparrows, New Holland honeyeaters, willy wagtails, starlings, Indian mynas (grrrrr!), rainbow lorikeets, blackbirds, spotted doves, quail, wattlebirds, magpies, cockateels, galahs, crows and sulphur-crested cockatoos.  

One of the things I have learned about birds in the last year or so is that mimicry is a big thing and not just within the same species but across species. For example, I put in a bird bath in the early summer of 2019. It was a very hot summer that year but not a single bird looked at the birdbath for more than a week. One day, an enterprising blackbird landed a took a drink. Within ten minutes, all kinds of other birds were drinking and the bath has been a hit ever since. The same dynamic played out with my pear tree. Again, a blackbird was the initial culprit who learned that the fruit was mighty tasty. Another blackbird joined in. That was ok because there was heaps of fruit on the tree and I noticed that if I just threw a pear on the ground the blackbirds would bicker all day over it and the damage was mitigated. The real problems began when the New Holland honeyeaters saw what the blackbirds were doing and decided to copy. The wattlebirds then copied them and I had to take defensive action to save the remaining pears (fortunately it was mid autumn by that time and I had already eaten a majority of the fruit anyway).

As I posted about here, I have recently added another species of bird to the garden: chickens. It’s been fun to observe their behaviour. Like the other birds, copying is a big thing for chickens. A week ago I was eating a bunch of grapes off one of my backyard vines. I threw a few grapes to the chickens assuming they would eagerly devour them but they showed no interest. Then, just yesterday, one of the chickens tried a grape for herself off another vine. The others saw her and instantly rushed over to see what this new discovery was about. All of sudden, the chickens were mad about grapes. Fashion seems to be a thing in the bird world as much as the human.

Another thing that birds and humans share in common is a social hierarchy. The human one is far more complex and there are multiple hierarchies across different domains. Nevertheless, we also have the equivalent of a pecking order which is why the behaviour of one of my new chickens reminded me of an old story about the Greek philosopher Diogenes. But, before we get to that, let’s meet the chickens.

First up is the top hen, a black Australorp. She’s a beautiful bird with shiny black feathers who is noticeably larger than the others and doesn’t mind throwing her weight around especially when food comes into the equation. She’s especially hard on….

The number two chook: a blue Australorp. Blue is a moody bird who is clearly the smartest of the group (by contrast, the black Australorp seems quite dumb). What she receives from the top hen she dishes out to the next hen down the line:

A rhode island red. Also a very attractive and smart bird. She’s actually a little bit bigger than the blue Australorp but just doesn’t have the fire in the belly and backs out of any engagement.

Which leaves the fourth hen who, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, I have named Diogena.

A floppy comb is sometimes thought to indicate sickness but with Diogena I have a feeling it’s a fashion choice. A little bit punk rock.

Diogena is an Ancona breed. Originally, I had assumed Diogena was the bottom chicken in the pecking order. When I got the chickens home the first time, she seemed to integrate the worst. In fact, I was worried she was sick as she didn’t seem to eat and wasn’t socialising with the other chickens. But she slowly integrated with the group and began eating and everything settled into a nice rhythm. Diogena is clearly the smallest chicken of the group, another reason why I had assumed she was bottom rung on the ladder. Then something interesting happened.

I was giving the chickens some zucchini as a treat (they love zucchini and I don’t). As a good chicken owner, I try to apportion the treats geographically far enough apart that every chicken gets at least some. But as the treat gets devoured and supply runs short, inevitably the pecking order is asserted and the top chicken hoards whatever is left. The black Australorp ruthlessly enforces this rule at such times and on this occasion had successfully chased the blue Australorp and the Rhode Island Red away. Diogena, in her normal fashion, hadn’t contested the treat. She will eat one if thrown her way but otherwise stays out of the fray. However, on this occasion she decided to wander over to the Black Australorp and help herself to some zucchini. I watched on expecting her to get the same nice hard pecking the others had got but was amazed to see that not only did the Black Australorp not peck Diogena, she forfeited the zucchini to her. This got me thinking and I realised I had never seen Diogena either peck or be pecked. She seemed to be outside the pecking order.

Apart from food, the other main way the pecking order is enforced is over who gets which roosting position in the coop. Higher is better and, in my coop, closest to the wall on the higher roosting bars is the most coveted position. Once the hens had learned to use the roosting bars, inevitably it was the two Australorps on the upper bars and the other two below. This was the way it was for the first few weeks. Occasionally, the Rhode Island Red would get above her station and jump up top but the blue Australorp would kick her off down below where she belonged. Until the day in question, Diogena had done her usual thing of casually roosting at the bottom and avoiding any disagreements. But not this day. This day Diogena decided she was going to roost on the top bars. Not just that, but in the coveted wall position. I thought for sure that she would be booted back to her place but yet again, the black Australorp just ceded the ground and took up a position below.

Hang on. Who’s the boss here again?

It was at this point that the story of Diogenes the philosopher came to my mind. Diogenes is the best known member of the Cynic school of philosophy. The word cynic meant ‘dog-like’ in Ancient Greek and the Cynics, Diogenes in particular, were known for living on the streets or in the woods or wherever they pleased. The Cynic philosophy is a fascinating one and was a prelude to the Stoic philosophy. It eschews social convention and encourages people to live according to their own nature in whatever way they see fit. One of the most famous stories that encapsulates this is the one where Diogenes was lying in the sun and Alexander the Great, who had heard about the great philosopher, came to visit. He asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him and Diogenes replied “step to the side, you are blocking the sun.” It is said that Alexander later asserted that if he was not Alexander, the most powerful man on earth at the time, he would rather be Diogenes.

These stories might be apocryphal but they do reveal something very important about social hierarchies which is that the most ‘freedom’ (in a very general sense of the word) is found either at the top or at the bottom. Interestingly, it seems that Alexander knew that and respected Diogenes as an equal. I am probably massively anthropomorphising the situation, but I think the same dynamic is going on in my chicken coop right now. In any case, I am pleased to have Diogena – the Cynic Chicken – in my backyard.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. We’re gonna have to ask you to leave. This is a respectable roosting bar.”

A change of technology

Goodbye to a digital bird
Hello to a real bird

This week I deleted my Twitter account and introduced my new chickens to their just-finished chicken coop. These two events are seemingly unrelated. I didn’t intend for them to happen at the same time. In fact, before last week I didn’t even know I was going to delete my Twitter account. Nevertheless, they did happen almost simultaneously and I’ve had this idea in my mind the last few days that there’s something to this coincidence that might be relevant for the future. Twitter is a technology and so is a chicken coop. Could this change of technology be symbolic of the kind of future that is headed our way? Let’s speculate.

I’ll start with the technology I stopped using: Twitter. This year was the ten-year anniversary of my joining Twitter. I was prompted to sign up by colleagues at the job I was working in at the time. Twitter had been around for several years by that point. I had heard good things about it but hadn’t felt the need to join. But I was glad I did. I instantly came to like the platform. The challenge of trying to say something worthwhile in 140 characters appealed to me. But the main cool thing about Twitter was that it introduced you to random things you otherwise would never have been exposed to. It was possible to listen in on interesting conversations between experts in some field. It was quite common to get a hearty laugh out of Twitter and also to be exposed to something interesting or profound. Tweets featuring links to full length blog posts or new products were common. Famous people would drop interesting bits of information, often quite personal. In fact, most people seemed to treat Twitter with a disarming honesty that belied the completely public nature of the platform. You really got a sense of what people were thinking that seemed to be uncensored and unfiltered.

All came to an end spectacularly in the last few weeks with a mass censorship drive that included the President of the USA but the writing had been on the wall for some time. Trump had already broken Twitter. Around the time when he announced his run for the Presidency I had to unfollow a large of number of people whose tweets I had previously enjoyed because their entire Twitter feed had become an anti-Trump rant-fest. This only got worse when he became President. Of course, it was all part of the Trump show that he barged his way onto Twitter or the evening news or whatever and forced the people who despised him to bend to his will. As somebody with no real stake in US politics, I have to admit I found the Trump-on-Twitter show very entertaining. Watching the President of the US sack somebody, or threaten some other country with military action or trade tariffs or whatever live on social media was fun to watch. But it pretty much destroyed the platform. Trump did what he did best and sucked all the energy around himself. But that just meant all the energy came to be about politics and therefore became toxic energy.

Twitter was doing its best to destroy the platform too. The introduction of its new feed was just one example. Didn’t they know that the whole point of Twitter was to get news directly from individuals rather than through officially sanctioned channels? The cool thing about Twitter was to get unfiltered, non-propaganda type news. In fact, the real-time nature of Twitter meant that the news broke there well before those official channels. Often on Twitter you could get video or information directly from some dramatic event happening on the other side of the world at the time it was happening. An hour or two later, the official news channels would confirm what you had already seen with your own eyes. Twitter’s great power was to harness a global network of individuals and let them provide the content. But Twitter couldn’t help itself. It had to provide the ‘news’ and eventually it started shadow banning, censoring and then de-platforming the very people who provided the content. It’s not possible to govern a global social media network adequately via manual labor. I assume Twitter is doing a lot of the work with algorithms and machine learning. The result is opaque, subjective and unaccountable censorship. It’s a rather Kafkaesque way to run things. One day you wake up and your Twitter account is gone and nobody will tell you why or what you did wrong.

I’ll be surprised if Twitter still exists in ten years’ time. But, in any case, my Twitter journey has come to an end. What started as a technology that opened a lot of doors to new perspectives ended as a technology that explicitly closed down those perspectives.

So, it was goodbye to a global communication tool and hello to a backyard egg production tool. The chicken coop is the latest development in another journey I have been on that is now almost as long as my Twitter journey. I have documented it partly on this blog in the garden update sections and my posts on Living Design Process. I suppose you could call it my Green Wizard journey after the name of the book that inspired me to start it– John Michael Greer’s “The Green Wizard”. The Green Wizard ethic is about appropriate tech at the human scale so it’s appropriate that the chicken coop was a retrofit of the small shed on my property.

A blue Australorp about to step into the coop

From the photos above and below you can see some of the elements that went into the construction of the coop. The bench of the shed has become the upper story of the coop and that is where the chickens roost of a night time. The long plank of wood that forms that walkway to the upper story was repurposed from the shed itself. The step that leads to the outside run was also made from wood that was in the shed. The large plastic pots which are now hopefully going to become nesting boxes when the chickens get around to laying were things I had picked up at a junk store once upon a time. The gate at the entrance to the outdoor run was part of the birdcages that were on the property when I bought it. The chicken wire that can’t be seen in the photo but which is doing time as a fox deterrent on the back fence was also left from the previous owner. So, almost the entire chicken coop is re-purposed from stuff lying around. All that stuff is now part of a piece of technology that will provide me with eggs for the kitchen, chicken manure for the garden and the quirky company of some new feathered friends.

I remember reading once that in terms of energy to transport/energy in the food, eggs were one of the least efficient things you can buy at the supermarket. That is, the amount of energy to transport eggs was very high relative to the energy in the eggs themselves. So, having backyard chickens is a good thing in terms of saving resources. The eggs produced by happy chickens in the backyard are of superior quality to what you can buy at the supermarket and, let’s be honest, the lives of the chickens are just better. Even the free range chooks in the commercial facilities are not exactly living well. So, there’s everything to like about having chickens in the backyard.

A chicken coop is a localised, decentralised and low energy technology. The inputs are the chicken feed and the straw bedding. These require a drive to the pet shop about once every few months. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about maintaining a chicken coop. Pretty sure nobody’s putting photos on Instagram showing them cleaning chicken poop off the roosting bars. But I have a feeling chicken coops are going to be round long after the Instagrams and Twitters of the world have gone the way of the dodo.

If I was a betting man, I would bet that my chicken coop will still be there in ten years and Twitter won’t. If this blog is still going at the time, I’ll be sure to make a post and check my prediction.

Living Design Process Part 2

Following on from Part 1 of this blog, in this post I’ll attempt to extract some of the principles I (think I) followed in my house and garden project in Werribee based on Dan Palmer’s Living Design Process workshop.

Principle 1: Embed Yourself in the Context

I lived in the house in Werribee for six months before undertaking the renovation. I got to know the climate, the prevailing winds, the house’s orientation to the sun, where were the nice places to sit at different times and seasons, which rooms I liked best for certain activities, which parts of the house were in good condition and which weren’t etc.  This understanding was invaluable when it came to making decisions on the renovation such as placement of windows, type of cladding, type of insulation etc.

In the garden, I came to see which areas were sunny, shady, exposed to the wind, how the soil was in different parts of the garden (much more variety than I would have thought), what sort of trees grew in the area (based on observing neighbouring yards) etc. While playing around with vegetable patches, I found the areas of the garden where things grew best. For example, on the west fence there was a space where the previous owner had kept birds in a large birdcage. Anything I planted there grew very strongly which I can only guess is because the soil had years and years of manure to fertilise it. By contrast, there were rocky areas at the back fence where things struggled to grow at all.

The knowledge gained from being in the place allows you to create something truly in tune with its surroundings. This is part of the reason that the cookie cutter housing estates we build these days seem so wrong. They are not in harmony with their environment.  They are centrally planned designs that are inserted into an environment without attunement to local conditions.

Principle 2: Have High Level Goals, Not Specific Ones

This enables you to change your mind based on new information. When I first moved into the house at Werribee, I knew I wanted to get some gardening experience and to experiment with energy efficiency measures on the house. Originally, I thought this meant growing annual vegetables and retrofitting the house. But as I got to know more about the context, including my preferences and desires, the way I achieved these goals changed. I ended up renovating instead of retrofitting and I planted an Edible Forest Garden instead of raised vegetable beds. I still achieved the same high level goals, but in a very different way. The result was something that I was much happier with.

Principle 3: Start Small and Iterate

With the garden, I started with a few raised beds and then gradually added more. As I got sick of watering I explored irrigation options such as Ollas and drip lines. Then I moved to wicking beds. Eventually I transitioned to the edible forest garden idea, but I planted only a few guilds at a time over about a two year period.

I (accidentally) pursued the same strategy with the house improvements. Starting by renovating the front of the house, waiting a year or so and then gradually finishing it off.

Starting small and iterating helps to reduce risk because you’re breaking everything up into small chunks. This spreads the cost out over time and allows you to maximise your learning. You keep the things that work and ditch the things that don’t.

Things that I kept: using IBC totes as water tanks, planting olive and apple trees (which seemed to grow best), cold composting (low labor but longer lead times), building onto existing frames, my builder (he was great), the plasterer, the second plumber I used and planting local native species in the garden.

Things that I ditched after they didn’t work: the first plumber I used (an asshole), solar air heaters (good idea but not practical in this context), raised garden beds (more work than I really wanted), hot composting (a lot of work that isn’t really necessary when you can get the same results from “cold” composting).

Principle 4: Go “slow”

So much of what we do in the modern world seems to have unnecessary haste built in. I see this all the time in my work. Because everything needs to be done yesterday we put together large teams to try and get it done.  That adds massive complexity and risk which is why many projects outright fail to deliver.

For the house renovation, I was in a position to take a slow approach. We had a very small team of myself, the builder and a couple of extra tradesmen. This allowed a very low stress approach the be taken. Low stress is exactly what you want when you’re dealing with complex things like house construction and gardening.  The higher the stress, the more likely you will make a decision you regret.

Going slow allows you time to reflect on what you’ve done. To observe it and understand how it changes things. As you add things to a context you open up new possibilities and close off others. We think we can imagine these possibilities in advance, but the reality is we’ll always miss something. It’s not until you’ve done something that you can fully appreciate what it means, digest it and incorporate it into the next round of decisions.

Principle 5: Maximise Optionality

There is a basic equation which states that the longer you wait to make a decision, the more information you have. Thus, it’s good to put off decisions as long as possible.  When you have the most information, you can make the best choice.

This is known as increasing optionality. As you put certain things into place, new options open up for consideration. From my house renovation, this was best captured by the french door episode. Installing the french doors led to a series of options opening up which would not have been possible if we had simply installed a standard window like I had originally planned.

Similarly, by starting my gardening efforts with only a few raised garden beds I was able to keep my options for the rest of the garden open.  This allowed me to pivot once I knew that the edible forest garden concept was the right one for me.

Principle 6: Embrace Randomness

In our culture we have this idea that randomness is bad. But randomness is only bad because we orientate ourselves to it incorrectly.

Let’s take a house build. Most houses are built via a big upfront planning process.  You have the architectural drawings and layout, all the supporting diagrams, you get together a big schedule of materials and buy them all upfront, you line up the different trades as best you can to minimise downtime. You plan for the most optimal sequence of events.

As a result of this way of working, any randomness, anything that happens that you didn’t expect is a negative.  It throws your plans out. Maybe it rained on the building site and some materials were damaged. Now you have to buy more. Maybe you ordered the wrong size door (then someone like me gets to buy it really cheap). All kinds of things can happen and they inevitably cause delays and put your perfectly ordered sequence of events out of whack. We didn’t get the wiring done in time so now the plasterer can’t come in and we have to push back the plumber etc etc.

But if you embed yourself in the context, go “slow”, start small and iterate, break things up into small chunks and maximise information you position yourself to adapt to change. This means you can benefit from randomness.

When people began to visit the house after the renovation was complete, many complimented me on the french doors. “Good decision” they would say. “Those look great”. But I didn’t choose the french doors. The french doors chose me. If they hadn’t come up for sale, I probably would have bought standard lounge room windows. So, I can’t really take credit for the decision.

What I can take credit for is being open to possibility. When the french doors presented themselves to me, I was able to capitalise because I hadn’t made the decision upfront.  I was free to imagine what they could do for the house. Picking up brand new doors for a fraction of the price is what we would call “good luck”.  What it really is, is being able to turn randomness to your own advantage.

When you have a big upfront plan, you have no “good luck”. You only have “bad luck”. In fact, you’re almost guaranteed to have bad luck. That’s why almost all large projects with big upfront design run over time and budget. We don’t usually like to hold people responsible for these overruns. After all, it’s just “bad luck”. In reality, the process is the problem. Big upfront design causes you to suffer from randomness. Small, iterative, ongoing design allows you to benefit from randomness.

Principle 7: Find the right people

The builder I used for the renovation was recommended to me by a friend.  This gave us a personal connection alongside the business relationship that we were developing. We met several times before starting and I got to know and like his approach. He had done this kind of thing before and I could tell that he enjoyed his job and wasn’t just in it to maximise his revenue.  He was an active partner throughout the renovation and made many important design decisions.

Long and complex projects inevitably have ups and downs and you want people alongside you who can ride it out.  Living Design implies the creation of something that is deeply meaningful.  If all parties aren’t able to find meaning in the project, the project itself will suffer.  You need to have people who find meaning in their work.  You also need to be willing to allow them the freedom and space to contribute their own meaning.  That means giving up some control and putting your faith in others.

 

Living Design Process Part 1

Last weekend I attended the Living Design Process workshop run by Dan Palmer. The idea for the workshop arose out of Dan’s dissatisfaction with the way many permaculture projects are run. He has begun to formulate a new approach to both house and garden design that substitutes big upfront planning for an iterative, adaptive and immersive process that he calls Living Design Process.

As the day unfolded it became clear to me that I had unwittingly used a very similar process with my house renovation and garden construction in Werribee. I had found that process to be very fulfilling but had never stopped to think why. Given that Dan has started to put some conceptual structure around that very topic, I want to document the process I went through as I think it’s a nice example of Living Design Process.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll break the post into two parts. The first will give a basic chronological account of what I did in Werribee. In the second, I’ll attempt to relate back to Dan’s Living Design Process concept and draw out some of the principles I think are at work there. Here’s the story.

In February 2014 I bought this house in Werribee.

Not the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen but it had two things going for it 1) it was cheap; 2) it had a decent sized block of land.

I had two high level goals I wanted to achieve at the property. Firstly, I wanted to gain some skills and experience at urban gardening. Secondly, I had become interested in energy efficiency and wanted to see what difference you could make to a house by retrofitting energy efficient materials and technologies. I approached the exercise with an experimental spirit. I knew that I didn’t know much about what I was doing, but I was keen to learn. The fact that the property was cheap and the house old and degraded meant that I had little downside. If things went wrong, I didn’t have much to lose as the property was really only worth the land value anyway.

So, I moved into this old, rundown house with crusty old carpets, dirty walls, chipped paints and all the rest. My first goal was to get the garden going. I kicked off with about 8 raised beds and tried my hand at the usual annual vegetables such as beans, broccoli, carrots etc. I tried raising my own seedlings and killed more than I care to remember. In general, I made all the usual beginner mistakes. I also got to eat food that I had grown which was very satisfying.

The house itself wasn’t exactly a paragon of energy efficiency. Whatever the temperature was outside, that was the temperature inside. By July this meant that overnight temperatures inside the house were down to 3 and 4 degrees. This surprised me as the windows and doors seemed to close properly and there were no obvious drafts. I was to subsequently learn that the devil is in the details – the sealing around the windows, the sealing around the architraves and skirting boards, the insulation (or lack thereof) in the ceilings and walls etc.

I started to wonder what to do with the house. I toyed with the idea of trying some energy efficiency retrofitting such as caulking up holes or adding glad wrap to the windows for cheap double glazing. But the reality was that the house was really old and rundown. It didn’t seem worth the effort.

My thoughts turned to renovation. The main body of the house was quite small and could probably be renovated relatively cheaply. I had a friend who recommended a good builder. He came out and had a look and came up with a ballpark figure which was within the amount I was prepared to pay. By mid-August we were underway.

We had made a time and materials agreement rather than a fixed price quote. To offset some of the cost, I took several weeks off work to be the second pair of hands on the job mainly doing the grunt work that would normally be done by a labourer. Although I didn’t know it at the time, both of these factors would be crucial in getting a great outcome.

As it was just myself and the builder, the pace of construction was fairly relaxed. This also turned out to be a crucial factor. It meant that design could happen as we went. Because everything was stripped back to the frame, we were free to consider a wider range of possibilities as we had the ability to modify the frame where necessary, for example to fit in a larger window. I ended up buying quite a lot of the materials as we went. Among other great finds was a wonderful old kitchen bench that was being thrown out of a very expensive house in Brighton.

A great example of this ongoing design process was the front door. Originally it had been in the middle of the house at the front. I thought it would be better to have it on the side of the house coming straight off the driveway. But that required a bit of extra work to firm up the frame on the side of the house. The builder and I discussed several different options each with their own pros and cons.

After about a week of mulling over it and not knowing which way to go, I came across a brand new pair of french doors that were being sold dirt cheap. They had been ordered as part of a new build but were the wrong size. I checked the measurements against the lounge room wall and realised that they would fit very nicely and would give almost floor to ceiling glass on the north side of the lounge. I ran the idea past the builder and we both agreed it would be a great addition to the lounge room.

This solved the front door problem (it would now go on the side of the house like I wanted it) but more importantly it opened up new possibilities. Now you could walk out of the lounge into the front yard. By coincidence, there was already the makings of a porch there as the old house had a strange kind of room in that space and the roof was still attached. With a bit of extra work we could make a very nice front porch.

So now I had french doors leading to a porch and a porch leading to an outdoor space (the front yard). The front yard itself was already essentially a small courtyard which suited the whole concept perfectly. With one seemingly innocuous opportunity (the french doors) several great design decisions snapped into place and the design of the front of the house and front yard came into being. The lounge room is the best room in the house in winter when the afternoon sun floods in through the french doors, heating up the room and filling it with light.  Even better, the porch blocks the summer sun from the french doors meaning unwanted heat is kept out of the house in the warmer months.

The last major decision of the reno was what to do with the floor. The floorboards were in good condition and I liked the idea of sanding and polishing them up. I tried to get some quotes but the tradies didn’t even want to show up to measure, they just gave a price per square metre figure. Only one guy did come and visit and he was something special. You could tell this guy loved his job. He knew exactly what sort of boards they were (they were actually a rare Tasmanian oak that were a very unusual dimension being several millimetres narrower than the standard). I gave him the job and he really went above and beyond and the floorboards to this day are a wonderful feature of the house.

(The finished product).

With the reno over, summer was fast approaching and that meant getting the raised vegetable beds in order. Although I had set up some basic irrigation (using Ollas), it was still a chore to keep the vegetables watered over a very hot summer. I quickly came to the realisation of exactly how much work was involved in this whole vegetable growing game. I started to hunt around for alternatives. That was when I came across the Edible Forest Garden books. Over summer I eagerly read the books from cover to cover and began to plan out my own forest garden. Here are a few different designs for the same patch to give an idea of the variety of options you can go through.

As I look back on these now I have to chuckle as they bear no resemblance to what I actually planted. I spent a lot of time pouring over these designs that never actually got used. But the exercise of designing was enjoyable. In hindsight, I think the main benefit of the exercise was to slow me down and make me consider things in some detail before taking action.

As soon as the heat of summer was over, I got down to planting the first lot of guilds which you can see here. And you can see the rest of the garden progress in the posts I made over the next couple of years.

During this time I was also finding my preferred composting method after playing around with hot composting, experimenting with solar air heaters, water tanks and greenhouses. These small, inexpensive and low risk experiments turned out to be really useful and the idea of using IBC totes as water tanks worked so well that I ended up using those exclusively in the garden.

By 2016, having enjoyed the results of the renovation to the main house, my thoughts turned to the back of the house. This consisted of an old fashioned outhouse and bathroom plus a small bedroom. Getting up in the middle of the night in winter and having to walk outside to go to the bathroom apparently isn’t most people’s idea of a good time.  So having an enclosed bathroom and toilet seemed like a good way to improve the house.

I toyed with the idea of pulling down the structures and building from scratch but it went against my retrofit idea. The next best thing could be to build walls using the existing framing and turning the back patio area into a living space. Using the same builder and method as last time (go with what works) we did exactly that.

With the house fully renovated and the garden fully planted, I now found myself in a bit of a lull. It was great to be able to walk into the backyard and pick something for dinner but there’s was no more formative work to be done, just the fine tuning.

That would have been fine but there were other tensions at play including the two hours of daily commuting to work, which was getting rather tiresome. The property was now in good shape and it seemed like an appropriate time to cut my ties with it, which is exactly what I did.

So ends the first round of this post. In the second, I will attempt to add some structure to these events and explain why it was that I found this process so rewarding and how it relates to Dan Palmer’s Living Process Design.

(Read Part 2 of this post)